The last Franciscans of Peckham call it a day

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The Independent Online
THEY SURVIVED the Reformation and stood firm in the face of anti- papist riots, but nearly 700 years after their foundation, Britain's Franciscan friars face extinction.

The 150-year-old community of Our Lady of Sorrows in Peckham, south-east London, is to sell its imposing Victorian friary and close. For so long the home of men who had renounced worldly goods, it is to be converted into luxury flats.

The community, in an area scarred by poverty and drugs, has dwindled to just five members - most of whom are aged over 75. The situation is repeated across the UK. In 1981 there were 3,230 men in monastic orders, now it is 2,728 - and falling.

There are, at the moment, seven friaries in Britain belonging to the Order of Capuchin Friars established by St Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. Soon it will be five, when Our Lady of Sorrows and a training college at Canterbury close.

A number of monasteries are marketing themselves as re-treats where harassed executives can spend a weekend to contemplate their lives without being interrupted by their mobile phones. But this is hardly an option in the concrete jungle of Peckham.

Few who pass by Our Lady of Sorrows, opposite a run-down housing estate, know of the work done by the men behind the green door with its unobtrusive plaque bearing the words "Franciscan Friary". However, they provide a vital support network for Catholic families in the neighbourhood.

Father Bruno, aged 77, has lived at the friary for more than 10 years. He has recently had heart surgery but still displays the fervour of a man who has answered "the call". He is optimistic about about the future although he accepts that his spartan life is one which has lost its appeal. His day begins at 5am with personal prayers, followed by mass, then visits to the sick and troubled. After dinner, there are more prayers before bed at 10pm.

"Of course it's a sad thing," he said. "We are very disappointed, but I'm an optimist. Across the centuries there have been peaks and troughs in religion. Our time will come round again."

Christened Desmond, Father Bruno grew up in London's East End. He became a junior clerk and studied shorthand. He was advised that the local priest spoke so slowly that it was easy to take a note of his sermons, so he started going to mass to practise his outlines - and ended up converting to Catholicism. After a stint in the forces and at a shipping merchants, he became a Franciscan in 1946.

"I told my boss I was going to join a monastic order," he recalled. "He said there was no money in it. It's difficult to explain a calling; it's like a love affair. How do you explain why you have fallen in love with a particular person? With God it is an enduring love affair.

"We live in an age when people go to bed hungry and will never wake up because they'll be dead from starvation. That is an obscenity when we have health farms because people in the West eat too much.

"Maybe people are not coming to us because we have taken the challenge out of religious life and have compromised too much. Everyone breaks the Ten Commandments, but that does not mean they should be changed to make life easier."